5 Questions to Daniel Bernard Roumain about They Still Want To Kill Us

Daniel Bernard Roumain is a prolific composer, acclaimed violinist, and social activist known for his signature violin soundworld infused with urban and African American influences and electronics. His latest aria, They Still Want To Kill Us,” recognizes the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a white supremacist atrocity of two days that completely obliterated one of the nation’s most prosperous Black communities from the face of the earth. Performed by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and directed by filmmaker Yoram Savion, the premiere on May 25, 2021 marks the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd.

“They Still Want To Kill Us” is produced by Rika Iino and Ichun Yeh of Sozo Creative with support from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. The short film is commissioned by a collective of arts organizations across the nation, and will stream free of charge on the Opera Philadelphia channel, ApolloTheaters.org, WashingtonPerformingArts.org, and more from May 26 – July 31, 2021.

The tragedy of the Tulsa Race Massacre is a statement of white fragility in the face of the audacity of Black male defiance and Black economic successes that defied established codes of systemic white supremacy. Was the convergence of the racial terror of Tulsa and the murder of George Floyd the inspiration to write They Still Want To Kill Us?

The inspiration to compose They Still Want To Kill Us was my wanting to convey how it feels to live in America as a Black man and know that on any given day, you could be murdered and die in America. That feeling never goes away. It’s always there. You know that the wrong cop, on the wrong day, at the wrong time, means your last moment might happen within a perverse, lethal intimacy. I was born in the midwest. I grew-up in Florida. I live in New York City and Boston. My son is biracial. I am creating work for this generation and the next. The work of a composer might be a type of cultural documentation, and in this, I want all of my work–the titles of them–to speak to this moment with clarity, vision, and most of all, truth. The truth is: as much as I would love to feel safe in America and a part of its moral fabric, I don’t feel safe and I would like this country to embrace a new shared radical morality based on empathy, safety for us, and justice for us all.

Daniel Bernard Roumain--Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Daniel Bernard Roumain–Photo by Julieta Cervantes

James Baldwin’s writings are critical mirrors of reflections on race, white fragility, and the consequences of “The Fire Next Time.” In the world of the performing arts, “They Still Want To Kill Us” was met with major public controversy. Is your art song and your music of political conscience “The Fire This Time”?

I can’t dictate nor can I predict the impact of my work. Baldwin has had a major influence on my work. I think to be in love with Baldwin’s work really means to see love as opportunities for clarity and comfort, but also, critical conversation and introspection. I am reminded of the words of Baldwin:

I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

In one sentence, Baldwin offers clarity and comfort in his love for America and, presumably, many of the people in it. He also invites a critical conversation on his definition of “love,” and why his work unfolds and is understood (and not understood) by so many. For me, the art I love the most is direct and complex. I hope my work is direct in its musical language and complex in its political meaning.

In your opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, you inform us that being Black and male in Philadelphia is both dangerous and short lived. Are there thematic throughlines about the state of Black maleness and Black society from We Shall Not Be Moved to They Still Want To Kill Us?

There are thematic throughlines between these two works. They are both looking at historical events in which Black people have been murdered by white people. They are both using words and music to convey the feeling of race-based massacres. They are both using hip-hop, funk, jazz, and operatic music to express the soul and sorrow of Black people. And they are both offering an opportunity for the listener to not only understand the events that took place and the harm that was caused, but to feel how that trauma unfolds from the score to the singer to the stage.

Malcolm X bemoaned that he did not see “An American Dream” but rather “An American Nightmare.” They Still Want To Kill Us ends “God bless America, God damn America.” As a Black man, a composer, and a father in 21st century America, do you see an unmitigated American nightmare, or is there redemptive hope for your biracial son’s generation?

As Baldwin makes plain: to love is to question. I see hope. But I also see horrors. I would like my work to be seen and heard as a series of brutal, beautiful musical moments towards telling the whole truth in an era of constant, relentless big lies. As a parent, I do feel the weight and responsibility of being honest, but also being real. Children might not always know when you’re lying, but I think they know when you’re fake. I think we too often allow ourselves to be blinded–we don’t see or admit to the sorrow of our fellow human beings.

Will that ever change?

There is hope for all of us if we can align our eyes on the same prize, and envision our world united in peace and committed to one another’s sorrow and success.

Daniel Bernard Roumain--Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Daniel Bernard Roumain–Photo by Julieta Cervantes

How can your commitment to speak truth to power through music make a difference in an America that is both preoccupied and condemned like Sisyphus to forever confront its immutable stone of racism and injustice?

Sisyphus was a King, a killer, and a coward, and I suppose we all have choices to make in how we will conduct our own lives. Rather than focus on the hard, cold stones of racism and injustice, we might consider the choices we have.

I choose to make my work an antidote to the many ills of the world. I choose to create work that is responsive to the historic and continuing effects of racism and intolerance. And I choose to create music that, I hope, inspires, informs, and heals.

Any commission is an invitation, and I would never want to overstay my welcome.

But like Sisyphus, what we say and do and reveal and create might have impact–not as a stone you’re rolling up and down a mountain–but online and in our minds, repeating endlessly and in perpetuity and, I hope, in endless dreams of big, Black love.


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